I don’t remember being all that worried when my car broke down for good along I-94 in the spring of 1996. We were coming back from our appointment with the wedding photographer. A nice couple had picked us up and took us to the Helmer Road exit in Battle Creek, where I called my dad for a ride.
It was a 1979 Plymouth Horizon, previously owned by my Great-Grandma Hill. From the time I was born I had gone to her house every Sunday, and sometime around the age of sixteen I had stayed with her while she recovered from surgery. During this week she must have decided I needed a vehicle, and so it was that the little red hatchback came into my possession.
We had our battles. That car taught me early on how to be nervous at every little engine sound, and how to stop at lights and stop signs without completely stopping (if I ever wanted her to go again); but that final year she gave me a lot of miles. I think it was the wedding we attended in Kansas the previous month that finally took her life.
One last road trip.
It was a half hour drive to my job as a Meijer’s shoe clerk, so the loss of my vehicle meant I would have to quit. I was a month away from my 20th birthday, and two months away from my own wedding day. I should have been panicked, but my young mind thought the time off would be convenient. Who needs money? Obviously we had no money for a car. I was engaged to a man with epilepsy who didn’t even know how to drive. This, combined with the fact that my car had broken down so much I was used to being without a vehicle made us believe we didn’t need to have transportation, either.
We did have bicycles, and at this point in our lives even I was more experienced with handle bars than steering wheels. Dave’s apartment was a short ride or walk to a plaza that had a grocery store, our bank, and his place of employment- where he made doughnuts. I planned on house sitting for my Uncle Steve and Aunt Tracy for the two weeks leading up to the wedding and my friend Julie was more than willing to transport us to appointments. Most of our wedding bills were paid, and Dave’s family had helped us out a lot with the costs. Everything was coming together just fine.
And it was fine. The wedding was a success, and we soon settled into our married life. Our apartment was a sad sight, but we didn’t know it. It was far better than our bedrooms in our parents’ homes. We had bought our living room furniture at a garage sale for three dollars. It looked straight out of the sixties, and was probably a fantastic find. We used a crate for a coffee table. When Dave moved from Illinois to Michigan, he brought his bedroom entertainment shelf and a table we used in the kitchen. Uncle Steve and Aunt Tracy gave us a bed.
In July I got a job working part-time at Hallmark, located in the same plaza where everything else was. I rode my bike to work and changed clothes when I got there. At nights I would hang out at the doughnut shop and drink coffee while Dave worked.
On weekends we would push the limit on how many groceries we could carry on two bikes. We were brand new to the freedom of living as adults, and grocery shopping was the best date ever. Of course, it was also cheaper back then.
I remember working on our very first budget and thinking how easy it was. I had always heard that living on your own and supporting yourself was hard. We had to pay rent, phone, electric, and cable. Combined it was under $700 a month. Minimum wage at the time was 4.75 an hour, which is what I made. I believe Dave made over 6.00 an hour. His income usually covered our bills and groceries.
We were incredibly happy. I look at this reality about our past and I cannot believe those two kids were really us. Sure we are still happy, but our lives resemble nothing of the world those kids lived in. It was all brand new, so it was more than we had ever had. We were carefree. We had nothing; and yet that may be the only time in the past eighteen years when I have actually felt financially secure. These days I fantasize about such a lifestyle. I don’t even know how to live like that anymore.
Two years ago I wrote optimistically about minimalism. I am still hopeful. In pursuit of the minimalist’s dream, we did make a true attempt to downsize last year. Friends who recently helped unload our 26’ truck may be skeptical. This isn’t the first time we have moved from Michigan to Illinois. The first time was in September of 1996, when almost all of our possessions fit in the back of a full size van.
We are collectors. We have things that we love. And, we want to live in a house that we want to spend time in. It took us years to have the means to fill a house with the things we wanted. We didn’t want that crate. Or that hideous entertainment center that broke within months. We used to keep Dave’s extra musical equipment in a closet, but for many years now he has had a home studio. We could never live in that first apartment now. Could we?
We aren’t rich. We aren’t even comfortable. We survive on my small income, and sometimes I feel we are just one problem away from being forced to answer that question before we are ready. This might be our entire retirement plan; but at least I’m thinking about it. I’m also always thinking about buying more life insurance.
I like the idea of being able to survive on a small income. It’s easier to replace. It’s not so easy to replace the income we live on now; the hiring process is exhausting. I miss the days of just walking into a store to inquire about a job and then starting the next day. Or the same day. Just one interview and no suit. Perfect.
And of course, we now have Teghan to consider. We can’t be as irresponsible as we probably are. She takes up her own little space, and we are going to need a better plan for her future. We don’t have a secret benefactor who will create a trust fund in her name so she is taken care of when we are gone (or when we are simply too poor). It would be nice to have more money left over for savings, and to live in a world where when everything falls apart we can still pay the rent.
Most of the time I look back at my younger years and think I was ridiculous. And I was. I have few things in common with that girl. But it turns out that just as I had suspected at the time, the teenage me really did have this whole thing figured out already.